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“The Bible” is a new history channel documentary. It was viewed by 13.1 million people on Sunday, March 3rd. On March 1st producers, husband and wife Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, wrote an editoral which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, proposing that the Bible should be taught in the public schools of America.

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You may be surprised to know that quite a few of us have taught Bible in the public schools. My first job out of college was teaching Bible in a public junior high school. My future husband’s pick-up line just after he met me in the office was, “What’s a nice looking woman like you doing teaching Bible?”

Indeed, I have to ask myself, should anyone be teaching a religious book in a public school? Our Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution starts with freedom of religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Where did this notion of democracy or civil rights originate? In world history class, sometime back in the Dark Ages, I was told democracy came from the Greek city states where the land owners got to vote. Leaders were elected. Greece is considered to be the birthplace of democracy. But is this the real story? Stay tuned for a different perspective.

In the summer of 1984 I was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institute. Most people know this as an art and educational center in western New York State, but it began in 1874 as a Methodist Bible conference center. On a bright Sunday morning a man who called himself a “pious Jewish atheist” was delivering the sermon for the day. Those old Methodists were, no doubt, turning over in their graves. I.F. (Izzy) Stone was speaking about the origins of democracy in the western world.

After years of fame as a liberal journalist, who received an award from the American Civil Liberties Union, Izzy Stone had begun to study Greek history with a passion. He had even memorized several long Greek poems. As Stone began to share his recently acquired wisdom, he stunned the Chautauqua audience by stating that the Greeks were not the authors of western democracy. Oh, yes, the Greek landowners, the men, got to vote, but there was no understanding in ancient Greece that “all men are created equal.” It was, Stone declared, the WASPs, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a maligned minority in modern times, who came up with civil rights.

My ears perked up. He was talking about my ancestors, people such as Nathaniel Dickinson who fled from England to gain religious freedom in 1652. The WASPiest of WASPs if ever there was!

Why would Stone, a “pious Jewish atheist,” suggest we should thank the WASPs for democracy? The audience sat stunned. I must confess I sat with a huge lopsided grin on my face wondering what this guy would say next. The WASPs around me were trying desperately to look Italian or Jewish or Native American – anything but WASP.

Stone unfolded the ancient story. Greeks who owned land in the city states believed they were the offspring of the gods. Male offspring of a property owner who had always lived in that area got to vote. Sometimes slaves were freed, but they never got to vote. Persons may have lived in the city state for several generations, but since they had moved there from elsewhere they were not granted the vote. They were forever “illegal aliens.” Women? Don’t even ask. Of course, women could not vote.

Stone progressed to even more ancient stories, in particular “god” stories. The Greeks had “created gods in their own image.” These gods were not creatures you could trust. They were bad dudes who cheated, lied, lusted, committed adultery, and murdered on a jealous whim. In other words, the Greek gods were created in the image of humans. Greek humans were the super race directly descended from sexual relations with the gods. Everyone else on earth was an inferior race. Why should they get to vote?

Izzy continued. Jews believed that humans were created in God’s image. All humans on the face of the earth were direct descendants of one original family. Females were also created in God’s image and equal to men, although different. This truth is stated in the first page of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….”
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them….” Gen. 1:26, 27

The apostle Paul made a big deal about this when he preached to the Greeks at Athens. Paul didn’t want the Greeks to miss the point.
“The God who made the world…made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth…” Acts 17:24-29

The point is clear. We were all created equal and in the image of God. Neither Greeks, nor Jews, nor WASPs are more or less in the image of God.

It is significant that White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the ones, Stone pointed out, who took the Bible seriously. Democracy began to sprout almost like an unwanted weed in Protestant Europe. This was because the Europeans began to read the Bible. It was printed by Gutenberg and distributed to be read by all. Next the Bible was translated into the language of the people. In time access to the Bible communicated a message of human equality.

So we see the roots of the concept that all men were created equal, but where did we get the notion of freedom of speech and religion? This freedom to choose originated from God and was described in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Let’s go back to that original family and the first choice: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That first choice involved absolute freedom. Of course the penalty for making the wrong choice was there, but the choice was real.

While I taught world history to sixth graders in public school, we talked of many controversial issues. Every year I asked the children, “What would you do if someone put a gun to your head, and told you they would kill you if you did not give up your religion? Some said they would change to stay alive. Then I asked them, “Would you really believe differently on the inside?”

To a child they responded, “No, of course not.” You cannot force people to believe. It is always a choice – quite literally an inalienable right.

Back to Izzy Stone’s lecture. The most astounding remark he was to utter came next. Stone said he believed that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, should be taught as history in the public schools of America. It was the foundation of our concept of civil rights and democracy. Without knowledge of the Bible a child was not educated. I sat there once again astounded to hear this journalist state such a notion. Remember, my first job at age twenty-two was to teach the Bible as history and literature in the public schools of Chattanooga, Tennessee – thus my future husband’s pick-up line.

Later as a world history teacher I taught all the major religions of the world. It was great fun. The students often asked me at recess what religion I was. They never knew, and I never told. It is an abuse of power for teachers to promote any religious belief. But I did encourage the students to speak out. It was their right.

Every year I tried to include students of various religions. One year we had a Jewish parent describe Jewish festivals. Another year a Hindu girl told about Hinduism. I had to smile when a classmate asked her if she was still Hindu. Her diplomatic reply was that since she now lived in the United States she must be a Christian. One year I asked the local Roman Catholic priest come in when we studied the Middle Ages, but he tried to convert the Protestants, so I didn’t invite him again. The funniest experience was the sixth grade atheist, a very smart girl whose atheist father must not have realized he was living in the Bible belt. She proudly declared her disbelief in any god. The kids ridiculed and preached at her. I finally got the “good little Christians” aside and said, “If you want to convert someone, making fun of them is not going to work.”

I.F. Stone put it this way, “If we teach Bible in the public schools, some will believe and some will not. That is their civil right.”

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11 thoughts on “Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible

  1. Hi Paula,

    You’ve told me you don’t understand Buddhism, so how could you teach world religions? I think the huge majority of public school teachers are not qualified to teach world religions.This isn’t a personal attack. I’m sure you meant well.

    Anthony

  2. Hey, Anthony, I don’t understand Christianity, and my undergrad degree was in Bible. Most teachers who teach reading don’t understand the complexities of reading. My mom taught school and told me once, “Paula, you can read, but that doesn’t mean you can teach it.” Subsequently, I got a graduate degree in teaching reading. And I was a pretty good reading specialist.

    But here’s the point, most of us teachers taught what was in the textbook, and, in world history, the major religions were covered. I at least had a course in comparative religions in college and had read a few books at college level – more than most sixth grade teachers.

    There was a BIG point in my story which might not have been too obvious. I always asked the kids from various religions to present their religion. This was their civil right, not mine as a public school teacher. Sadly, I never taught a Buddhist kid, just Hindus and Jews and Southern Baptists.

    As to understanding Buddhism, your knowledge of that religion is astounding. I’ve been to Buddhist temples, eaten vegan, read some books. But, no, I don’t understand it. I do disagree with the basic concept that we are part of the universe which is “god”. I recall showing a documentary of a guy who traveled in India (I know Hinduism) and talked about being absorbed into the ocean of the universe. Then there were the Buddhists in Tibet who sold me the yak hat I am wearing in the picture of me. They also assured me it was okay to eat meat at 14,000 feet altitude. Do I get it? No, but I can teach what the textbook says and show a few documentaries. I don’t think I converted any kids to any religion, well, maybe the atheist. Who knows….

  3. I also don’t get Buddhists who say it’s okay to eat meat, just like I don’t understand Christians say God wants them to be wealthy, or Hindus who believe in a caste system. Or to put it differently — they don’t understand the religions to which they supposedly adhere.

    I think teachers who teach reading don’t need to understand the complexities of reading. Their job is to teach reading, not the complexities of reading. But to teach religion, one must understand the complexities of religion, since the teaching is not about how to do something/acquire a skill, but rather about a complex subject.

  4. I think I get the complexities of the major religions. I just try to be humble.

    Off topic – teaching reading is easy when the student has normal brain function. Many students do not. But even normal kids need a teacher with a good textbook. California instigated a reading program called “literature based.” Their kids’ test scores went down. This was because the average primary school teacher did not know how to teach phonics, didn’t know what sight words were, didn’t know how to use body learning (I forget the technical word). If their teacher’s manual had still existed then anyone could teach reading.

    Same point with world religions. If the teacher’s manual and student textbook were reasonably well written and accurate, anyone could cover world religions. I was actually far better qualified to do this than most history teachers.

    • Hi Paula,

      Even if you do, the huge majority of teachers don’t understand the complexities of the major religions, or even the basics of many of them. I hate to imagine seeing them teaching world religions. And very many teachers would not be able to keep their personal biases out their teaching.

      When recalling the history or social studies textbooks we used in high school, in one of the “best” public school systems in the country (Fairfax County, VA), most of it was just garbage. They justified dropping atomic bombs on civilians (terrorism). They devoted 1-2 pages to the Holocaust. I hardly learned a thing in high school. I was bored out of my skull. Starting in the 10th grade, I just brought in my own books to read and respectfully told the teachers that I wasn’t going to participate in class, but that didn’t wish to disrupt the class and did not intend this as any kind of personal affront.

      Anthony

  5. I hear you. But what is the alternative? Don’t teach religions as part of world history? Clearly, religion has a major impact on a culture. Yes, teaching Bible in the US would lead some teachers to proselytize. But what’s the alternative? I don’t have all the answers, but I do know some of the questions. Izzy Stone’s conclusion made a lot of sense to me – some will believe, some will not. That is their civil right. (His real conclusion was quoting about a 20 minute long poem in Greek. I studied Greek in college, but even I couldn’t understand that poem.)

    • But if the elective/qualified teacher option weren’t available, I do think it’s better not to teach something at all than to teach it knowing that a significant percentage of teachers will do a terrible job and will violate the constitutional separation between church and state.

  6. The few areas where Bible is taught as history and literature they are very careful about teacher qualifications. Those who teach world history pretty much need to stay with the textbook. I think you are bringing up a serious issue relevant to both religion and politics. I am fanatically opposed to classroom teachers stating either their own personal religious beliefs or their political leanings. We simply must base teaching on firm evidence, whether it is in the science class, government or world history. Even the interpretation of literature could be open to bias.

    And that might lead to another blog essay. How about why bad teachers never get fired?

    • In part because bad administrators dig in their heels and can’t admit they hired bad teachers, and bad administrators don’t get fired enough, even though they don’t have the same union protections as teachers. So internal politics play a big role in all of this. Good teachers who rock the boat and try to get crappy administrators to change things are often seen as a liability by administrators more than bad teachers. I suspect those teachers would get fired before bad teachers if there were no union protections. In part because teacher pay is so crappy and working conditions are so challenging that its very difficult to find and retain good teachers, so there would be serious staff shortages if bad teachers were fired. In part because it’s often difficult to determine which teachers are bad. There is so much subjectivity in determining who is a bad teacher, and objective measures are often flawed; e.g., if teachers in poor, violent school districts are expected to get the same test scores as teachers in affluent districts with much different student populations, that would be unfair.

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